Christmas in Rome.
It’s beginning to look a lot like. . . Natale! In Italy, Christmas is a three-day celebration of parties, dinners and, of course, card games. Here’s how we celebrate
December 24 is La Vigilia
Christmas eve is practically an all-night affair in which family and delicious come together for a fish-focused banquet like la Festa dei Sette Pesci (a meal focusing on multiple fish courses). Many families will also participate in an evening mass like Rome’s epic vigilie at San Pietro and Santa Maria Maggiore. More often than not, families prefer to stay indoors playing cards and tombola (bingo-like prize winning game often) well into the wee hours.
The feast of the seven fishes, a Christmas Eve tradition.
In Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomites, skiers welcome in the first hours of Christmas Day in a torch-lit run. In the medieval village of Faglia di Oratino in Molise, residents build a large candle made of dry branches, measuring 15 meters high, and carry it to the town’s main church to be burned on Christmas Eve.
At the stroke of midnight, Babbo Natale (Santa Claus), makes his very first appearance on Christmas Eve with presents often displayed on a pyramid-shaped ceppo, together with candles and other decorations.
Beloved dishes include tortellini in brodo in Emilia Romagna, polenta with boiled baccalà in sauce in the Veneto region, eel baked in foil in Lombardy, boiled lamb seasoned with sauce in Piemonte, chicken livers and roast guinea fowl or stuffed capon in Tuscany, spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams) or capon broth to start followed by stuffed capon in Campania, Sardegna’s delicious tiny gnocchi known as malloreddus, or hen broth and pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines) in Sicily.
Tortellini in brodo, a warming Christams dish.
Struffoli, the tranditional Neopolitan Christmas treat made with honey and colorful sprinkles.
Don’t forget the desserts, and though every region has its own, the Christmas buffett wouldn’t be complete without panettone and pandoro. Depending on the region, there are a myriad of dolci to enjoy including parrozzo in Abruzzo, pandolce from Genova, panone in Bologna, struffoli, roccocò and susamielli in Napoli, tozzetti biscotti-like sweets from the Lazio town of Viterbo, and Puglia’s famous mostaccioli cookies.
December 26 is Santo Stefano
Just when you thought you would catch up on your sleep, it’s Boxing Day, a great time to visit friends or distant family members. Everyone loves to come together once again to enjoy leftover dishes and sweets.
Like on the vigilia and Natale, at the end of each meal the table is cleared, the carte napoletane are out and somebody is checking the score cards. Expect to play favourites on Santo Stefano including mercante in fiera, tressette and saltacavallo. Celebrations extend into the night, playing raucous games of tombola.
Tombola, the Italian “bingo” traditionally played on Christmas.
A Christmas scene in Milan. Policemen collect gifts for the Befana del Vigile, 1955.
January 6 is La Befana
Don’t think we forgot about La Befana, Italy’s answer to Mr. Scrooge. To celebrate the Epiphany, we fill up the stockings again thanks to an ancient story in which a naughty witch flies around the countryside stuffing sweet treats and presents into the stockings of good children. Those who were naughty get carbone (a lump of coal) usually in the form of black sugar sweets, while nice ones get small toys.
Once La Befana arrives, the holidays are officially over and it’s back to school and work!